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Our gospel passage this morning is a very well known story of the 10 bridesmaids waiting for the arrival of the bridegroom. This parable comes in the context of a string of parables all dedicated to the same theme or similar teaching on a similar theme: that of being watchful as we wait for the return of the Messiah.
And, of course, this is Advent Sunday, which begins this short season of the year, leading up to Christmas when we think about waiting for the return of Jesus Christ at the Second Coming, whenever that will be.
Jesus, in Matthew’s Gospel, had given plenty of teaching on this topic. The Messiah’s return would be like a fig-tree in bloom, The Messiah’s return would be like the days of Noah. The Messiah’s return would be like a thief in the night. And then, just before he tells this parable about the 10 bridesmaids. He tells his hearers that the servant who is faithful in waiting will receive the blessing of God. The master will return at a time which no servant knows and if we are ready, prepared for his return the blessings of heaven will be ours. So the fact that Jesus devotes so much of his energy and teaching on this theme should impress upon us the importance of it. We are not to sit lightly to the fact that Jesus will return.
But, of course, that isn’t a very popular teaching these days: not many of us, hand on heart, can say that we really live each and every day as if we were expecting Jesus to return. But the Bible is clear about this fact. Just as Jesus ascended into heaven nearly 2000 years ago, so he will return at some date in the future. And, to drive the point home with us again, Jesus tells this parable about the 10 bridesmaids waiting.
Most of us will agree that a wedding is a very exciting celebration - but there is a lot of waiting around on the day! We wait for each other as we get ready to go to the wedding. We wait for the bride to arrive at the church. We wait for hours and hours as the photographer gets everyone lined up properly. We wait until all the photos are taken. We wait at the reception for the bride and groom to turn up. We wait in line to welcome them. We wait for the food to arrive. We wait through all the speeches – some longer and more boring than others. We wait until someone else goes home first – and take our cue to leave. Weddings are great occasions, but there is a lot of waiting around…
So it’s not surprising that, when Jesus tells a story about a wedding, it includes a lot of waiting…
As was the custom in Israel at the time, the bridesmaids were going out to meet the bridegroom and, because it would be dark, they needed to take lamps with them. But, as Jesus says, five were wise and five were foolish. Five of them took enough oil – and a bit more to spare. Five of them took their lamps – but not enough oil. And, for whatever reason, the bridegroom was late and because it was evening – and they were no doubt bored with the waiting - the bridesmaids fell asleep while they were waiting.
In the early church, there was a strong belief that Jesus would return very soon. Paul, who wrote so many of the letters certainly believed that Jesus would return again before he died and his earliest letters strongly encourage believers to be ready for that event. But Matthew’s Gospel was written quite a lot later when people’s expectation of an imminent return had grown weaker. Perhaps, like the bridesmaids, they had begun to get a bit bored waiting and, metaphorically, they were getting sleepy.
How much more so is that the case for us: we have been waiting 2000 years now so maybe we too are not really expecting it to happen any time soon and so we are like the bridesmaid too: getting sleepy and drowsy in our faith not at all prepared for the Second Coming of Jesus. Perhaps we think, “Well, it doesn’t matter if I don’t pray today: there’s always tomorrow” or “It doesn’t matter if I don’t forgive that person today: I can do it tomorrow” or “It’s not important for me to help my neighbour this afternoon: I can do it another day.” It may seem like a cliché – but it’s true, that, one day, there will be no tomorrow.
So, what does it mean for us to live as though there were no tomorrow? What does it mean for us to live as if Jesus will return tomorrow morning? Do we cancel our insurance policies? Do we stop paying into our pension scheme? Do we sell our house and give it all away? Do we resign from our jobs and spend all day in prayer? Well, we could…but I don’t think that is what Jesus is advocating here…
I think the preparation that Jesus wants us to make is a much more ‘spiritual’ one; not just for us – but for those we love too…
Perhaps preparing for the return of Jesus, what we should be thinking about as we enter the Advent season is more about how we can help others be ready to meet with Christ. Perhaps it is more about sharing Christ with others in word and in deed. Perhaps it is more about modeling a relationship with Jesus to our children, or to those we work with, or to those who work for us. Perhaps it is more about reaching out to those in need so that they can experience the redeeming love of God in their own lives through our compassion and our care.
But this, of course, is tough because no matter how much we reach out to others and seek to meet their needs, we are still aware of others who need the love of Christ who we might not be able to impact as we would like. We can help our next door neighbour but maybe we can’t help the oppressed people of Syria. Maybe we can help the oppressed people of the Syria too but we can’t help the children suffering in the refugee camps. No matter what we do, there is always more to do…
That sort of thinking can be very discouraging and if we get discouraged like that, we will end up doing nothing. The truth is, as we live in the light of the Second Coming of Jesus, we are inspired to reach out to others. And, whether we have a day or a week or a year or a whole lifetime, we can impact our society and our world for Jesus.
It takes time, but change does come slowly.
Again, this is an idea we are not very comfortable with these days. Waiting is so hard, especially in a society which stresses the importance of the Instant. We have fast food. We have internet connections that need to be faster and faster to satisfy us. Instagram, Snapchat – the vey names of these apps mitigate against waiting.
I remember flying to San Francisco a couple of years ago for work and a man on the plane was getting stressed and anxious because we were arriving 50 minutes late. He was getting so angry and was arguing with the Cabin Crew about it. And I thought, 100 years ago, we would have been going by ship and we would have been happy if we had arrived in San Francisco the week we were supposed to. And here he was, getting angry because our journey half way across the world was 50 minutes longer than it should have been!
We want Instant-everything these days. Waiting does not come as naturally as it should…
And that demand for the Instant impacts the way we view our faith too. We want Instant access to God. We want Instant answers to our prayers. We want Instant spirituality, without having to work at the process. Some of the best-selling Christian books encourage this type of thinking: titles such as ‘10 Minute Spirituality’, ‘2 Minute God’. To my mind, they do a great disservice to Christians, promising something that is just not achievable.
Richard Foster is a wonderful spiritual writer and he has said, “We cannot accomplish in 40 minutes what has always taken 40 years”. And he is so right. Like the wise bridesmaids in this parable, we need to learn the art of waiting on Christ and how to fill our time appropriately.
The art of effective Christian spirituality is wrapped up in the ability to take the long-term view. 10 bridesmaids were waiting. They all had the same lamps and oil at their disposal. They all had the same wedding to prepare for. They all had the same bridegroom coming to them. They all had to wait for the same period of time. But only five of them were taking the long-term view. And, when the five foolish bridesmaids went off to buy some more oil, they missed the coming of the bridegroom.
I wonder what sort of things take us away from our waiting on God…Our career? Our ambitions for the future? Our desire to amass wealth and get security for the future? The general business of life? All of these things are important, of course - but only if they don’t hinder our waiting on God. Jesus will return sometime, when we are least expecting him and we must not be found wanting. We must strive to be faithful and patient in our waiting on him.
Perhaps some of you have seen the film The Shawshank Redemption. It was made in 1994 and tells the story of Andy Dufresne who is imprisoned for killing his wife; a crime he didn’t commit. Dufresne had been a geologist and asks another inmate to get him a rock hammer to occupy his time. The other inmate, called Red, is worried that Dufresne will try to use the hammer to dig a tunnel and escape. But Dufresne laughs at the idea; the hammer is a really small one. Much later in the film, the prison officers are making the Roll Call one morning and a prisoner is missing. It’s Andy Dufresne. They check his cell and tear down a poster on his wall. Behind the poster is a tunnel he had been digging, dropping the dirt in handfuls during his morning exercise in the yard outside. Andy Dufresne had used the hammer to dig his way out after all. And his friend, Red, says. “I remember thinking it would take a man six hundred years to tunnel through the wall with that hammer. Andy did it in less than twenty.”
20 years of digging for freedom. How many of us would have persevered for that long? Most of us would have given up long, long before. The task of tunneling for freedom would have been too daunting, too much effort…pointless…
But Andy Dufresne realized that 20 years was no time at all to achieve freedom - and that is a wonderful metaphor for our own approach to spiritual discipline. Like Dufresne, we need to take the long-view. We must keep digging our way to freedom, digging our way towards God, one handful at a time. However slow and painful it may seem, we need to have patience in our relationship with God. The bridegroom will return and we need to work every day of our lives so that we are prepared for when it finally happens. The bridegroom will return and he wants to find us with our lamps full, ready and prepared to greet him.
Verse 13: “And Jesus concluded, ‘Be on your guard, then, because you do not know the day or hour’”. That is the task that lies ahead for each one us. May we spend this day – and this Advent period - preparing for the return of the Bridegroom – Jesus Christ - so that we may spend all eternity in the wedding banquet to which we are all invited.